Demonising Demonstrating: Are Students Free to Protest?
Impact investigates the aftermath of student protests, with exclusive interviews with senior members of the NUS and prominent protesters in Britain.
People are scared to talk about plight of the British student protester. Students who started their university careers with a voice, shouting loud and clear through megaphones on campuses and chanting in city centres, students angry about tuition fees, angry about cuts to university funding, angry about public sector pensions and angry about tax evasion, have been silenced.
At the start of this investigation, sixty emails were sent to societies and political groups at over twenty universities around the country. Just two responses were received. One was a dud and one was a lead.
The lead led to discussions with members of the NUS. But the hard truth still stands that many of those who were the most active, many of those who have been the most outspoken over the past couple of years have been stunned into conscious noiselessness. As Laurie Penny wrote in late March, unless you’re looking for trouble, it’s best to “sit down” and “shut up”.
Nottingham seems to have forever been a relatively politically apathetic university. Even at the height of public dissent during the Callaghan years in the 70s, Nottingham students remained on the most part meek and timid.
The student demographics, the isolated campus and the small city have all been blamed for student’s inability to rise up, Nottingham’s unconscious noiselessness. At the anti-tuition fees protest known as ‘Demolition 2010’, the Students’ Union sent a few buses down to London, charging £10.50 a head. Manchester’s SU, meanwhile, paid for hundreds to make the trip free of charge.
The events of that day are still casting a shadow over the lives of those involved. On 9th December 2010, Alfie Meadows was at the forefront of a protest which has lived on in the courts and the media for a year and a half now. While thousands of students were protesting, mostly unaffected by the police’s presence, Meadows was subject to some of the most extreme police brutality seen over the past ten years. While being kettled in Parliament Square, he was smashed over the head by a police baton. Emergency brain surgery saved his life but for weeks there were fears of long-term brain damage.
Speaking to The Independent in a recent interview, Meadows’ mother, Dr Susan Matthews, argued that the prospect of a five-year prison sentence for violent disorder was comparatively welcome in light of the possibility of brain damage months before.
But Meadows’ trial has infuriated protesters, members of the NUS and media personalities alike. Many consider his trial a cant attempt by the courts and the Government to make an example of protesters, shocking them into submission, while the police officer who nearly killed Meadows rests assured that he will never be imprisoned.
Speaking exclusively to Impact, Dr Matthews, who is a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at Roehampton University, reminds us, “Alfie has already paid a very heavy price for protesting against the closure of his philosophy department, the rise in tuition fees and the cuts to higher education but this is a cause about which he feels passionately.”
With a nod to those who have supported Meadows throughout his ordeal with the police and now the courts, and perhaps in particular to those protesters who have banded together in a pact of solidarity under the title ‘We are all Alfie Meadows’, Dr Matthews says, “I am very proud of the way Alfie has coped over these fifteen months since his injury and wholeheartedly support him and the other student protesters.”
Jurors failed to reach a verdict on Meadow’s case in April. It is now likely that he will face a second prosecution in Autumn. His relentless ordeal has prompted many to speak out against the growing intolerance of the Government, the courts and the police to protesters but while his predicament is arguably the most extreme, he is not alone.
Ashok Kumar is a prominent American student activist who has studied postgraduate degrees at LSE and Oxford. After studying for an MA in London, Kumar became LSE’s Education Officer and has since been vocal about tuition fees and LSE’s links with the Gaddafi dynasty, appearing on Newsnight, slamming his college for their involvement with the Libyan regime.
Since then, he has been arrested twice. On two different occasions last summer the police took offence to Kumar’s behaviour. It should be noted that having viewed footage that is readily available on Youtube, it seems Kumar was arrested on one occasion simply for swearing in the presence of the police.
Both of Kumar’s cases are still pending and as such it is not possible to quote him on these incidents specifically for fear of “contempt” but he is willing to be quoted on the politics behind the Government’s rising intolerance. Kumar draws parallels with the military when deciding whether he thinks the Government, the police or the courts are more to blame for some of the more disproportionate responses to student protesting over the past eighteen months, he. When it comes to war he asks, “Is it the soldiers fault or…the Government’s fault? Well, the soldiers are actually doing the killing and the raping and the pillaging but at the same time it’s the Government that is pulling the strings. In fact, arguably, it’s a power structure that’s pulling the strings.”
Later, he adds that this systematic flaw means that, “everyone’s to blame”, including the courts: “The courts are stacked up against poor people, against people of colour. If you need any testament to that, the summer’s riots are a perfect, lucid example of how the courts are part and parcel of victimising the youngest, most vulnerable people in our society.”
As an American, Kumar’s remarks on the differences in the political and judicial responses to protesters in the US and the UK is telling: “The courts in the UK are more brutal than in the US. In the US, there is a constitution. There is due process of law. You have public defenders who aren’t great but they’re definitely better than solicitors who are in the pockets of the police stations.”
But Kumar argues that while the British system forgoes many civil liberties, systemic injustice is more prevalent across the Atlantic: “In terms of the sheer brutality and the sheer violence and the totality of violence and the monopoly of violence that the state has and the apparatuses of racism that are instituted by the state, I think nothing can compare to the US.”
How does Kumar recommend students should demonstrate in light of the Government crackdown on civil protests? “On university campuses you can do public-facing, grass roots, rank-and-file-style campaigning that puts pressure on the power structure. At a university, we have so much more freedom. The director doesn’t want to arrest the people who are funding them. We’re protected by a hegemony that doesn’t want to see rich, white, middle-class, university-educated students being dragged, kicking and screaming, from university administration buildings.”
Occupations on university campuses are far safer than those carried out on private land as Nottingham alumnus Matthew Butcher found out last year. Butcher graduated in Geography in 2010 and sat on the SU Executive as Environment and Social Justice Officer between 2008-9. On March 26th 2011, Butcher took part in the occupation of Fortnum and Mason department store in London.
He recalls the scene vividly: “Everyone met in Oxford Circus and was told to follow either a blue or a green flag. We followed them to a target, which UK Uncut had decided on. The flag ended up inside Fortnum and Mason as did I and a couple of hundred other people. There was a singing, chanting, ‘pay your tax’ type atmosphere. Then things began to get a bit strange. A few people left. Then the police kind of decided they weren’t going to let anyone leave. A senior policewoman said to me directly, ‘What we need to do is get you all out at once.’ People asked her if she could guarantee we’d be let out [without being arrested] and she said, ‘that’s my understanding’.
“I was one of the people who said we don’t have to trust her but I think they’ll let us go. And anyway, they didn’t. We all went out as a group and they led us into a kettle of riot police who then refused to talk to us at which point they systematically arrested everyone.”
Butcher was then held for twenty-four hours in a cell in Romford in Essex, “It was all a massive reaction. There was a sixteen-year-old girl there who suffers from mental health problems who had an awful time as you would as a sixteen-year-old who definitely wasn’t expecting to be arrested.”
Butcher, along with the majority, had his case thrown out. Following this, thirty protesters including Butcher decided to pursue their own cases and take it to the Crown Prosecution Service: “Eventually they buckled and ended up officially finding us not guilty.”
One of the incentives to attain this official acquittal was to offer the two groups, who were found guilty and fined, a better chance of successfully appealing their cases. While Butcher’s criminal record was wiped clean, the protesters who were found guilty of aggravated trespass, having peacefully occupied the department store, will forever retain this blight on their records unless their appeal is successful.
Butcher passionately discusses the more disproportionate sentences, which have been handed out to students for their involvement in demonstrations. On the same day Butcher was arrested, Frank Fernie was arrested for throwing two light timber placard sticks towards a line of heavily protected police officers, having been assaulted on a number of occasions by the police earlier in the day. Both placards fell short. He was later imprisoned for violent disorder and has now served his twelve-month sentence. His judge said at the time it was “important to make an example” out of him “to deter others from acting the same way”.
Ten people (at the time of going to print), almost all of whom were students when arrested, are in prison for involvement in protests over the past eighteen months. Their lives have been shattered. Many have committed ‘crimes’ of the same sort as Fernie. Some, like Fernie, were also threatened by police brutality on the day of their arrest.
Danielle Grufferty, Vice President of the NUS with a remit for Society and Citizenship, told Impact about the political implications of the crackdown on protests: “I think the justice system has been overtly political in its approach: threatening water canons, using rubber bullets, sending threatening letters to students before the demo last November [something Butchers has experienced] saying ‘be on your best behaviour or the police won’t be responsible for their actions.’”
“Protesting is obviously a sign that the Government is not very popular and the rise in student protests has clearly been something they’ve wanted to crackdown upon. Students have been used as examples, for example being sent down for two years for throwing a bit of plywood [a reference to Fernie].” While Grufferty accepts that it has become more difficult to protest over the past months, she also asserts that the demographics of protesters has shifted from the white, middle-classes to a “more diverse range” following some of the Government’s “austerity measures”.
Nevertheless, it really seems that there has never been a more difficult time to be a politically engaged student and while this does not excuse the Nottingham student body’s apathy, it does go someway to explain it. Protesting is a human right but a vulnerable one at that and now more than ever it is important to prove not only that we want it but also that we need it.